07/03/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2013

A Stronger Grad Nation

As another graduation season comes to a close, there is cause for celebration. The most recent graduation data show that for the first time the nation is on pace to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020. This is a goal four U.S. presidents have set and three have missed, so far. While we have not achieved this milestone, this recent progress has put us on a course to do so and, as a result, future graduation seasons can be even better.

More impressive, the pace of progress in boosting high school graduation rates increased in the second half of the last decade, right at a time when graduating from high school was becoming more challenging. This is good news and cause for hope as Common Core State Standards start to take hold in America's classrooms.

But our challenges haven't disappeared. If anything, they've become more urgent, and if not addressed, will affect millions of young people, society, and our economy. Today in America, nearly one million school-aged children are not finishing high school with their peers. For African-American, Hispanic and limited English proficient students, as well as students with disabilities, the challenge is even greater, with many states graduating only 66 percent of students or less each year. In some states, the graduation gaps between students of different backgrounds can be as large as 50 percentage points.

With more than half of all new jobs
in the next decade requiring some post-secondary education, getting a high school diploma is a minimal requirement for a successful and productive life. Yet, this summer, between 10 and 20 percent of American high school students planning on attending college won't make it to campus in the fall. Of those who do, one in three will require remedial courses and of those who enrolled in a four-year institution, only three in five will complete a degree within six years.

Commencement season is the perfect time to celebrate how far we've come, while still recognizing how much further we have to go. We know what to do, and we know where to focus. We have examples of schools, districts, and states that are making tremendous gains. Evidence-based solutions exist to keep students on track to graduate from high school with the academic and social and emotional skills to succeed in college, work, and civic life. Especially within the dropout factory schools, data systems are helping identify which students need which types of targeted interventions to get back on track to graduate -- so that these students get the supports they need, when they need them. We need more schools and districts to adopt this framework.

With a continued commitment to increasing high school graduation rates and preparing students for future success, we not only pave the way for future generations, but honor current graduates and the communities that supported them to success.

John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, and Mary Bruce, Senior Policy Advisor at Civic Enterprises are co-authors of the 2013 annual report "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic" along with Robert Balfanz and Joanna Hornig Fox of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education.